Home Commentary The dignity of labor

The dignity of labor

My notion of St. Joseph is that of an all-around handyman, a favorite of homeowners who know the big challenge of maintaining things. I have always been fascinated by people who can fix broken things, people who are very handy when it comes to doing repair jobs on things that don’t seem to work anymore, who can make them function all over again.

In the eyes of people, the woman Joseph loved and wanted to marry was no different from damaged goods or rejects in a store for quality products. But he saw God’s hand in turn of events and allowed himself to be guided and to get involved in God’s plan. You see what kind of characters God chooses in his work of salvation?

The opposite of the handymen types are the wasteful characters whose attitudes are conditioned by what Pope Francis calls a “throw-away culture.” They are the type who, perhaps because they have too much money, can decide too quickly to dispose of things because they can afford it anyway. Good thing if it’s just things they dispose of; sometimes they do it on people too, as though they were no different from things.



We have a prototype of that in today’s first reading — in Saul of Tarsus. He looked at Christians as defective beings, as liabilities to society, who, he thought, should be eliminated or disposed of like pests.

Perhaps because Jesus was himself the son of a handyman, he would “recycle” him later into a new person. Still the same, but at the same time totally different! From an arrogant and murderous persecutor of Christians named Saul, to a humble and faithful propagator of the Christian faith renamed as Paul. He had to experience a fall in order to rise again into a new man; he had to blinded first before he could see the light of Christ.

Bishop Pablo Virgilio S. David of Kalookan in the Philippines leads the observance of Ash Wednesday in a poor, urban community in his diocese. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

The young Saul must have been the perfectionist type. A kind of man who thought so highly of himself, he could not tolerate anything that he considered as flaws. Perfectionists can be dangerous people too. Especially when they force their criteria of perfection on all other people, like the mythological character called “Procrustes”.

There is a character in Greek mythology called Procrustes who was supposedly a bed-maker. First, he would make the bed. Then he would fit his prospective clients into his bed. If they were too big for his bed, he would cut them to size. If they were too short, he would have them stretched to fit his bed.

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That is not how God works, you know. God’s objective is to create, not just to fabricate, to give life, to let things grow into what they can be, each in accordance to its own nature. Since God meant us human beings to be his image and likeness, God created us to be creative like him.

The other day, I heard in the news report that because of the lockdown, because of an immobilized market, farmers in Europe have become so badly affected, they find it more advantageous to just dump or destroy their milk, and agricultural products.



Could it be that God has allowed this pandemic so that we can just stop for a while and think how much of our human activities are still truly creative, and how much of them have become destructive?

Perhaps this is a time for us to rethink our human activities, to reassess our overproducing and rather wasteful industries and enterprises? Do we even see anything wrong when workers are treated like objects? When labor is commodified? When profit becomes the main objective? When human activities become dehumanizing? When work is no longer about making a living but about making money?

We build, build, build, but do we even care to ask what for, or who it is for? Remember what happened when people built the Tower of Babel according to the Book of Genesis? How God looked down from heaven and saw people united around a project that was meant only to promote human pride, arrogance and egoism. And how he decided to disperse them? Sometimes when human activities go wayward, what is built has to be destroyed in order to start all over again. Crisis situations can come as a call for new judgment, for reconfiguration.

Jesus had to strike down Saul in order to recreate him into Paul, the person he really was called to be. I am already looking forward with excitement to the “rerum ovarum”, the new things that will come about because of the crisis that we are now going through. May we not waste this opportunity to restore human labor to its proper dignity and nobility of purpose.

“The dignity of Labor” is a homily delivered by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of the Diocese of Kalookan during the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on Friday, May 1.

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